All photos by author
Bella Mia’s has one of the biggest bedrooms I’ve seen in New York City. When I visited her this summer, toys were scattered around carpet, awards and photos from her modeling and pageant career lined the walls, a closet was stuffed with a decadent amount of hats, jewelry, and designer clothes. As I was soaking in my surroundings, Bella Mia situated herself on her bed, coming to rest between one pillow decorated with a portrait of herself and another that read “little princess.”
Bella Mia is a dog. A Maltese therapy dog, to be more specific. While I was admittedly slightly jealous that a dog had a closet and I, a grown-ass-woman, did not, having covered various dog events in the past I was not particularly surprised to find out that Bella Mia had her own room. She and her owner Rose Bolasny are part of a clique of New York’s “celebripups,” a group of dogs who flaunt freshly polished manicures, hats, necklaces, and sunglasses, among other accessories on a daily basis. These dogs walk in fashion shows, have boyfriends, participate in beauty pageants, wear custom-made designer gowns, and attend charity events.
Bella Mia is even part of this scene’s version of the Girl Scouts, the PupScouts.
Back in 2011, Susan Godwin, an actress and dog owner based in New York, was browsing through her friend Lela Hadick's online store, Whimsy Collection, in search of clothes for her dog Tasha. While sifting through items such as the Dog Wedding Dress Set and the Boys Rock Harness Vest, Godwin came across a Girl Scout outfit. She wanted to buy it for Tasha, but of course couldn’t in good conscience throw her dog in such a getup unless Tasha was in a troop.
So the PupScouts were born. Godwin built the group by recruiting new members at doggie birthday parties, which are a normal thing in her circle. She met others at places like Bloomingdales (where some dog owners get their pets photographed with Santa) or Halloween costume parties around the city.
The PupScouts also grew thanks to DPFamily, a private pre-Facebook internet community where dog owners could exchange photos, advice, and tips on upcoming dog events. Once a year, the site hosted an annual meetup in Washington, DC, and Godwin saw the event as the perfect place to hold the first PupScout meeting.
It was an instant hit, a safe haven from the competitive nature of pageants and fashion shows this crowd was familiar with. Troop 4, based in New York City, became the flagship troop; today there 100 members in nine troops worldwide; the newest, “Wigglebutt Warriors Troop 1017,” is a cocker spaniel–only group based in Pennsylvania. The PupScouts have gone Christmas caroling at retirement homes, donated money and supplies to local animal shelters, and were awarded the Golden Mutt Award during the Strut Your Mutt walk in 2013 for raising the highest amount of money for the Best Friends Animal Society.
On a September night in Madison Square Park, I found myself seated in a circle with nearly 15 dogs at my very first PupScout meeting. Passersby gawked, squealed, and take photos of the dogs parading in their uniforms—the owners and dogs, presumably accustomed to the attention, acted as if nothing were happening.
On my honor. I will try to do my duty, to help the dog community, and my country, to help make humans smile, and to be there to guard and protect, especially those at home.
That is the pledge that kicks off every PupScout meeting. Then they went into the first item on the agenda for the night: PupScout cookies. These are treats from Spoil Me Rotten Bakery and Little L’s to benefit animal-related charities and pay various administrative costs. The dogs taste-tested the products and played with one another while the owners discussed upcoming events, badges, and PupScout meetings. Then they launched into their closing song, to the tune of “Taps”:
Day is done gone the sun
from the lake , from the hill, from the sky.
All is well, safely rest. Dog is nigh.
A few weeks later I joined the PupScouts as Gia Marie, a Pomeranian, earns her leadership badge. Her task? To cross the Brooklyn Bridge and educate her fellow PupScouts about its history. Victoria, Gia's owner, clung to her dog as she read aloud the story of how the bridge was built while the other PupScouts listen attentively; everyone does, in fact, learn something they didn’t know about the landmark. Before we can actually get on the bridge, of course, bystanders hound the PupScouts for photos. This happens pretty much wherever they go.
On the bridge, I walked with Rose Bolasny and Bella Mia. To Bolasny, Bella Mia is the daughter she never had, and raising it as a child (she also has two grown sons) simply made sense. Other people may have qualms about having dogs who have social calendars and closets full of clothes—the dogs certainly are spoiled—but this lifestyle is all the canines have ever known, and it certainly doesn’t seem like they dislike the attention. Soon we’re in Brooklyn and ends over pizza, beers, and dog treats.